Jan 14 2008

Going, Going, Gone?

Some legacy technologies are on the verge of extinction. Here's what emerging systems are replacing them and how to ensure your staff is ready.

Some legacy technologies are on the verge of extinction. Here's what emerging systems are replacing them and how to ensure your staff is ready.

South Dakotan I.T. workers won't have to bid adieu to their mainframes just yet. Though the state plans to phase out its mainframe and AS/400 minicomputers in favor of more modern systems, CIO Otto Doll has not set an end date for these legacy platforms.

"We decided to allow attrition so we can move people over to new skill sets gradually. As we are slowly moving systems off the mainframe and mini world, we are doing the same thing with our people. It will take years," says Doll, commissioner in the Bureau of Information and Telecommunications in South Dakota's capital city of Pierre. "We hope to be able to forklift the mainframe by 2010, but there is no guarantee of that."

State and local governments of all sizes are grappling with the transition from the monolithic big-iron systems and other aging technologies that have run public life for decades to modern distributed computing schemes such as service-oriented architecture (SOA). Fortran, GroupWise and Systems Network Architecture are fading away in favor of Java, SharePoint and IP. As Doll's experience illustrates, the pace of change can be glacial. The mantra of "no technology for technology's sake" applies all the more when public dollars are funding IT.

But though migration may not happen at the same rate as in the private sector, it does happen. For example, the handwriting is on the wall for the mainframe in state and local government, according to CIOs and observers. "We are not seeing a lot of states extending their existing mainframe systems," says Sean Ebner, regional vice president for the Spherion Professional Services unit of Spherion in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. "A lot of state and local governments used to extend or revamp their mainframe systems. In the past five to seven years, they have stopped doing that. They are extending their mainframes with Web-based apps," says Ebner.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has had a technology road map in place for a few years. Anne Margulies, its new CIO and assistant secretary, says she will execute against that strategy, which is not so different from what the large companies are doing. "We need to move away from legacy systems with legacy code," says Margulies in Boston. "We need to move toward platforms that serve individual departmental needs and a service-oriented architecture where there will be shared services."

Web-services technology is a perfect fit for governmental bodies, because it offers a good way for citizens to serve themselves via composite applications that cross a variety of new and legacy applications, says Ebner. For example, a Department of Motor Vehicles online license renewal application might cross a number of state databases, including those for moving violations and excise-tax payments.

"There has been a resurgence of IT in government because technology is a great way to serve the community," say Ebner. "Using Web apps to make data available to the populace is a very efficient way to do that." So, it is hardly surprising to see the mainframe give way to distributed computing. But every government body or agency must prepare for technology change in its own way.

In Transition

Doll of South Dakota started preparing the organization for the inevitable a few years ago when he consolidated the mainframe systems programming group into IT, as opposed to being off on its own. "Now, any computing platform -- mainframe, mini or PC -- is managed by the same set of people in the same physical technical group," he says. That made a statement to the 291 IT staff that they were all on the same team while also symbolically underlining the state's plans to phase out the mainframe and AS/400 (now known as the IBM System i).

Meanwhile, Doll has been getting training for everyone on his staff as well as exposing the systems programmers to the server world that is steadily taking hold. He pairs a person who works on the mainframe with someone who supports servers in order to cross-pollinate.

"I don't have a lot of staff. We have to get these guys to move with the times. We send them to training, we give them the opportunities to move their skill sets from what they have been using for decades and move them over to the new world," he says. It is a delicate balance, he admits, because he will need a few personnel skilled to maintain the state lottery application on the AS/400 for at least the next several years. For this state CIO, it is not a question of turning off all the legacy systems overnight.

At the other end of the spectrum is the state of Tennessee, which recently pulled the plug on its SNA network. The migration to an IP-based distributed network has been in the works since 2000, when the state began to move some SNA circuits to IP via data-link switching.

The SNA network had 15,000 seats at its peak, but had become increasingly difficult to maintain. "Most of the equipment we had on our network was 10 to 15 years old, and we couldn't even find replacement parts," says Alan Atherton, director of network operations for Tennessee, in Nashville. SNA had become simply too much of a hassle and too expensive.

Atherton spearheaded the migration to an outsourced BellSouth IP network. Currently, the state has more than 1,300 locations on that network. Conversely, the state had 900 SNA locations at the beginning of 2007 and was down to 90 by fall. The state finished the migration to the new IP network in early January when it powered down the main SNA controller.

Currently, there are six state employees who maintain the SNA network; they will be retrained, via classroom training, mentoring and hands-on experience, to support a LAN. The conversion has not been too difficult on the organization, in Atherton's view. "With any transition, there will be some emotion because of fear of the unknown," he says. To calm anxieties, "we let [staff] know early on there would be a place for them."

Back in South Dakota, Doll and his staff are taking things slow. He figures the next transition is just around the corner. "You don't do this overnight. It will take many years as we start to move over from those older technologies to the server infrastructure of today," he says. "By the time we get this all done, the industry will come up with some other way of doing things, and we'll all have to move over to that."

The Replacements

South Dakota recently moved off its legacy storage to an enterprisewide backup and archiving system. The project team consisted of mainframers, as well as those adept with newer technology.

IT Dinosaurs

Older technology being phased outContenders coming on strong
Computing platformMainframe, minicomputerServers
Network typeSNAIP
Network operating systemNetWareWindows Server, Linux
Programming languageCOBOL, Fortran, PowerBuilderJava, VisualBasic, Ruby
DatabaseedaBase, SybaseSQL Server, Oracle
Storage architectureDisk arraysSAN, NAS
E-mail/collaboration toolGroupWise, Lotus NotesMicrosoft Exchange, Microsoft SharePoint Server

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